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Posted at: May 11, 2019, 1:44 AM; last updated: May 11, 2019, 9:40 AM (IST)

Stars on the webscape

A new crop of actors in web shows is impressing viewers with its acting prowess and layered portrayals

Nonika Singh

“Unlike television, where an episode is shot everyday, in the case of web dramas, the actors get enough time, roughly seven to eight days per episode, to get into the skin of the character. Besides, better budgets, higher remuneration, lesser chances of burn-out and platforms like Netflix keep a tight leash on the quality of content.”

They don’t sweep you off your feet, and they do not dazzle you with their starry charisma. Yet in the realm of digital space, by dint of their acting skills and relatable personas, they sure are shining bright in their own right and merit.

Sumeet Vyas can easily take a bow as one of the original web stars. Kubbra Sait was immediately hailed as a breakout star as she wowed viewers with her stunning portrayal of a transgender Cuckoo in Sacred Games. Rasika Dugal, Vikrant Massey, Rajshri Deshpande and character actor Rajesh Tailang — they all stand tall, impressing one and all with their prowess. Vyas can’t believe it when actors like Vivek Oberoi approach and appreciate him. He is equally gratified when students in remote areas, such as North-East, make him feel like a rockstar.

As web is gaining more and more ground in India, web series, they agree in unison, has come like a manna from heaven, opening doors for actors like never before. Sumeet Vyas would not like to categorise actors, according to different mediums. Yet it were Permanent Roommates and Tripling that made people sit up and pay him more than attention and earned him a foothold in cinema too. But he views the two mediums as symbiotic. He says, “I presume many who were familiar with my web-series did come to see Veere Di Wedding because of me. Then many who saw the film went back to check my work in the digital medium.”

Rasika Dugal agrees, “Sure one thing feeds another. Delhi Crime leads viewers to Manto.” Of course, the kind of attention she got after Mirzapur is unbelievable. 

Even Tailang, despite a far meatier role in Selection Day, feels Mirzapur has been the real game changer for him. It is not as if Tailang is a greenhorn. He has been around for a while. Though he has been doing films since 1998, yet he began to register on viewers’ mindscape only after his latest stint in web, including his cop act in Delhi Crime. 

Ditto for Vikrant Massey. Even though his first TV appearance was in 2004, he had a hit show Balika Vadhu and made his presence felt in films like Dil Dhadakne Do, it’s now that he is visible more than ever. All thanks to his latest innings (Mirzapur, Criminal Justice, Made in Heaven, et al) in the web world. 

What is it about web dramas which make them grab more eyeballs? The first reason is more than obvious. The writer gets more time to develop the arc of characters who then are seen more and actors can do full justice to it. As Dugal puts it, “The medium is perfect for an ensemble cast.”

While in a two-hour film, the first axe on the editing table falls on minor, especially female characters. Here the format lends itself suitably to subplots, and hence more characters. 

Another reason why actors shine is explained by Tailang. He says, “Unlike television where an episode is shot everyday, in case of web dramas, the actors get enough time, roughly seven to eight days per episode, to get into the skin of the character. Besides, better budgets, higher remuneration, lesser chances of burn-out, OTT platforms like Netflix keep a tight leash on the quality of content.”

Vyas adds, “Web series liberate an actor for he can express himself the way he wants to; there are no rules and norms, which otherwise hem him.”  As of now, the dangers of being stereotyped on web are far less, as say on television or in cinema. Actors are being reinvented all the time. Dugal was taken by surprise when makers of Mirzapur dared to imagine her in the bold avatar of Beena Tripathi, who oozes sexuality and wears it on her physical being. 

Kubbra Sait, who was comfortably settled in the mould of an anchor found herself shattering not just the mould but also a glass ceiling. Cuckoo, according to her, was born for the web and became a driver of change. She doubts if the same part would have got so much footage in a film.  

Rajshri Deshpande shocked and awed viewers with her role of Subhadra in Sacred Games. Web, she insists, allows her to break free and provides more opportunities where she doesn’t have to be formulaic or even herself. “If in all my characters, ‘I am me’ then what is the point?” For her, the biggest fan moment is when the fans realise, “Oh my god, it was you.”  

Certainly web has opened doors for them like never before. But the country might be turning a web junkie, they still swear by the magic of cinema. Tailang avers, “There is a certain romanticism about the 70 mm screen. The whole ritual of watching movies as a community experience is a different ballgame altogether.” Dugal agrees but also feels that web and its characters are more relatable. So as she walks into a restaurant she is greeted with a ‘hi’ from a random stranger. “Indeed this is a different kind of fandom where viewers are less awestruck, and find you more approachable.”

However, as Bollywood bigwigs, too, are making their foray into digital, do they sense a similar star system threatening their space? Vyas, who is also a writer, believes the system is fairly democratic so far. Dugal, however, can already hear murmurs of, “Let’s get a big name to sell the series.”

Tailang is keeping his fingers crossed and hoping the web doesn’t go the television way or become starstruck. He is concerned, not just for himself but also for others as, “there is so much more talent out there waiting to be discovered.” Just as they have been... duly recognised too. Tailang laughs, “It is when people start making memes on you that you realise you are being noticed.”

In Bhutan, Sait inundated with selfie requests almost like a ‘visitor’ attraction. But she is intelligent enough to know that the only way forward and being relevant is by opting for different kind of work. “Whatever may be the medium, people love you for your work so be as diverse as possible.”  

As Natalie Wood says, “Stardom is a by-product of acting,” their prime focus is on honing their acting skills. Digging deep into their characters like Dugal, they are also watchful of the fact that the freedom of the space is used in a creative and nuanced manner. In the meantime, their layered portrayals are their calling card, winning them both viewers and applause. In web, stardom has a new name, or shall we say many names. The list is only growing.... 

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